Book Review: A Backpack, A Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka
Author: Lev Golinkin
Length: 307 Pages
My Rating: ★★★★★
To be quite honest, this isn't a book that I would have normally picked up, but my friend Marianna and I both ended up buying this one day while we were shopping together at Barnes and Noble. She had picked it up based on the cover and after reading the premise, we were sold.
A Backpack, A Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka is a memoir told from the perspective of Lev Golinkin, a young Jewish boy living in the Soviet Union during the late 80's. After years of fearing the government and being persecuted, his parents decide that they must leave. It took months to get the appropriate paperwork and permission to go, but eventually they were ready do the final packing. Equipped with 10 suitcases, carrying their entire family's identities, they depart on the long journey to America.
As someone who has never been through the experience of leaving their country and trying to get over culture and language barriers, I wasn't sure that I would be able to relate well to this story. I was totally wrong. What I quickly learned was that: 1. I knew almost nothing about the culture of the Soviet Union during this time frame. When Lev mentioned things briefly and I didn't know what they were, I felt compelled to look them up (instead of moving past it), so I ended up learning even more than what was in the memoir. And 2. Despite having entirely different upbringings, I still found myself relating to how Lev viewed himself and the world around him. He mentions one of the reasons for writing his story was to work through his past to allow himself to move forward with his life and be happy.
One of the most eye-opening parts of this story for me was realizing how much your life changes when you move to a place where you don't know the language. Lev describes it perfectly:
"You no longer have opinions. You don’t have jokes, or consolations, or conversations, or amusements, or experiences, or perspectives built over a lifetime. They’re useless, like you. How are you going to share them? With whom? You are an animal, mooing and mumbling and excuse me-ing your way through the smallest chore, the most inconsequential grocery store errand. And that’s how the language barrier works."
This passage really made it hit home for me. Recently, I went on a trip with my family to Spain, to an area where very few people speak English. Without our friends that are natives to help us along, it would have been impossible to do such simple things like order food or figure out what bus to take. It gave me a taste of what this would be like. I remember coming back to the U.S. and just thinking how nice it was to understand what the heck was going on around me.
Obviously, I recommend this memoir highly. It was captivating and oddly inspiring to read about Lev working through all these experiences he had. His honesty and wit kept the story grounded and prevented it from becoming a sob story. That said, be prepared to feel a lot of things. This story is sad and made me so angry at parts. Lev and his family experienced so many things that people should NOT have to deal with. Their story deserves to be heard and I think Lev tells it perfectly.